For Olympic Medalist Chellsie Memmel, The Gymnastics Comeback Is Finally On
By Blythe Lawrence |
Aug. 06, 2020, 2:15 p.m. (ET)
Chellsie Memmel reacts after competing in the floor exercise during day four of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for gymnastics at the Wachovia Center on June 22, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Of all the difficult things Chellsie Memmel has done in the gym during the past 20 months, nothing was as uniquely challenging as dialing U.S. national team coordinator Tom Foster’s number.
Memmel, the 2005 world all-around gymnastics champion and a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Beijing, felt Forster needed to hear from her that her comeback, widely speculated about on the “gymternet” online community for the past few months, was for real.
“Comeback” is a word Memmel, 32, shied away from until very recently. Before July 31, she was cautiously calling what she was doing an “adult gymnastics journey.” But once Forster was on the line, she knew there was no holding back.
“It was funny because there was a little part of my brain that was like, oh, maybe he’ll tell me it’s not a good idea,” said Memmel, who made the comeback official last Friday in a video posted on her YouTube channel. “He didn’t. He was super kind, super supportive. He told me to stay healthy. Maybe someone else will be like, nah, you shouldn’t do it, but he didn’t.”
What Memmel is attempting is nearly unprecedented in women’s elite gymnastics. Few elite gymnasts compete into their third decade, and those who do tend to represent countries without robust programs. Coming back as a mother, after an eight-year layoff, adds another layer of complexity.
Then there’s the conventional wisdom that dictates female gymnasts must log long hours, rarely take vacations and remain completely locked in to gymnastics to be at their best. Memmel is doing none of that. She works out Monday, Wednesday and Friday and conditions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, giving her body time to rest and recover, and letting her be a mom to son Dashel, 6 this month, and daughter Audrielle, 2.5, with husband Kory Maier.
Though her progress drew her plenty of online attention, Memmel maintains that the comeback concept has been a short time coming.
“At the beginning of March I would have said, mmm, nope, no way, whatever, you’re crazy. And that’s what I truly believed,” she said. “And then things happened and I kept with it. I was having fun.”
The Roller Coaster
Before 2012, Chellsie Memmel was notorious for three things: big skills and plenty of grit, but also time-eating injuries. In a dazzling debut at the 2003 world championships in Anaheim, California, when she was barely 15, the virtually unknown Memmel, a last-minute replacement for an injured teammate, performed brilliantly, helping an inexperienced but exciting U.S. team capture its first world gold, and tying compatriot Hollie Vise for the bars title.
The Olympics would not come so easily. A broken bone in her foot kept her out of the 2004 U.S. championships and Olympic trials, and she was eventually named an Olympic team alternate. She returned healthy to win the world all-around title over Nastia Liukin by the slimmest of margins in 2005, but injured her shoulder on bars at the 2006 world championships in Denmark and was forced to withdrew from the all-around final.
I was starting to get old when I was 20 going for my second Olympics. And then coming back trying for my third it was like, well, you are pretty old now. And it’s like, why?
After missing most of 2007 due to injuries, she delighted supporters by coming back and securing a spot on the 2008 Olympic team, only to break her ankle during training in Beijing. She competed bars only at the Games, helping Team USA win a silver medal, but her entire Olympic competition passing in less than a minute.
Memmel was impressive during the run-up to London 2012 but, plagued by a shoulder injury, ultimately (and controversially) was not accepted into the U.S. championships and retired the same year. Though she moved on with her life, getting her judging brevet, coaching at M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wisconsin, marrying Maier and giving birth to Dashel and Audrielle, she found that she still wanted to flip with her gymnasts, who were learning many of the skills she loved.
Spurred by a fellow coach who bet her she couldn’t complete a difficult rope-climbing exercise, Memmel began the arduous process of getting back into gymnastics shape by completing a weekly “Chellsie Challenge,” tough and sometimes risky conditioning sets (like pistol squats standing on top of the high bar), making the most of her competitive nature and the gym’s equipment.
Once her body felt stronger, she started doing actual gymnastics skills, playing around with intricate and rarely seen combinations and visibly having a ball doing so.
What began as a desire to bounce around and have fun gradually turned into something more serious. As the months went on, Memmel found that not only could she do many of her old skills, they felt better now than they did 10 or 15 years ago when she was wholly dedicated to an elite training regime. Her father Andy, her coach for the last eight years of her career, began writing training plans for her to follow.
Into The Future
At some point this spring, Memmel also became aware that the 2021 world championships were only for individuals, meaning she would have a stronger shot at making the team as an event specialist. The possibility of getting an Arabian salto in pike position on beam, a unique skill that only Memmel does, named after her gave additional food for thought.
When the pandemic forced M&M to close briefly, Memmel had the gym to herself for several weeks. Between disinfecting and cleaning, she took advantage of the foam pit to test out some old and new tumbling lines, and spent time working fun combinations on beam, all to the delight
of her growing online fanbase, who cheered her on in the comments and buzzed about comeback possibilities. After being cleared to swing bars, she mixed that in as well, adding vault, the event that challenges her most, shortly after. By the time she picked up the phone to call Forster, she was back working all four events.
For the next few months, she’ll continue to put skills together, “and see what that looks like and see what routine construction would be,” she said. She’ll push herself, “slowly and smartly and to see how my body responds,” but not every day. Eventually, a national team camp may be “on the horizon.”
No matter where the comeback journey takes her, Memmel is looking forward to seeing how far she can go. Showing others that you don’t have to stop doing gymnastics just because you’re no longer a teenager is high priority too. Her skills don’t scare her. Nor does being labelled “old” for an elite.
“I was starting to get old when I was 20 going for my second Olympics. And then coming back trying for my third it was like, well, you are pretty old now. And it’s like, why?” she said.
“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me too, and they’re graduating seniors, and the gym’s like, ‘All right, maybe you should start thinking about coaching. ’And why should we just have to stop if you aren’t going to compete in college or if you’re not going to do it even competitively? It’s still a good workout, the conditioning part of it, and if it’s still fun, again, it doesn’t compute in my brain why should you stop something that is fun and is good for you? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org
on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Follow her on Twitter @rockergymnastix.